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A Story About iPhone Game Development

Developing for the iPhone is a bit of a shift for me; in more ways than one.  I spent ten years climbing the career ladder towards bigger projects, bigger budget titles, bigger studios, etc.  But when I found myself taking leave of the million dollar projects and high profile studios and joining up with a little 3 man startup iPhone app company, I had no idea the very next rungs on the ladder would be some of the most challenging and rewarding of my career.

 Now just before I had gone to id Software in Dallas, in the week I had free after leaving Midway Studios Austin, I had agreed to help my friend Jeremy Howa do a little iPhone game for his pre-startup company.  I believe they were working at the boss’s upstairs pool table at the time I pitched in and helped them out by doing the artwork.  I also named the game, “TriniTower;” which was to become somewhat of a recurring task.

TriniTower was a three-tower solitaire game, light in artwork, but the artwork needed to be high quality, or so I thought.  I did a few mockups, and had Jeremy come over to the house and review them, and we had game design talks as we changed artwork and scope on the fly.  At the time, Jeremy and I were technically the only ones on the team, as John and Brian Howard, the ones funding the project, were busy at another software design establishment.  This was my first taste at iPhone development, and I was pretty lost.

Luckily, Jeremy had picked up a fresh new Mac Mini for development, and begun the painful process of converting his programming skills over to the Mac platform.  I still developed artwork on a PC.  The art doesn’t care where it’s made, but we had to assemble it on the Mac.

After a whirlwind week of design, art production, execution, programming and testing, we had what was a playable game, and were progressing pretty fast, when the time came for Katie and me to move to the Dallas area so I could start work at id.  Jeremy and I continued work on TriniTower over high-speed Internet connection, IM, email and Skype.  We would use these remote connection methods to hold meetings over the Internet.  Often times we would discuss a change over Skype, I would edit the artwork, email it over to Jeremy, and he would recompile the game on his end, and hold up the iPhone to the webcam and show me how it looked, animated, etc.  Rinse and repeat till we were done, and that’s how our first iPhone game was done: partly in person, partly over webcam chat, email and Instant Message.

I had definitely never developed like this before, but it wasn’t bad.  Our next foray into the iPhone field was a reskin of John and Brian’s first iPhone app “PocketDyno:” an accelerometer based portable dyno app for testing your car’s speed.  This time, the project was done completely over instant message chat, Skype webcam and email.  I never even saw in person the project working until well after we were done with the complete artwork overhaul.

Three or four months before the first round of layoffs at Midway Austin, Jeremy was carpooling to work in the “grandma car.”   This was the affectionate name of the Chrysler Jeremy picked me up in every other workday.  During the ride, we’d talk about the ArduiNIX project we were toying with, along with a stack of half- baked game ideas.  One such game idea that so persistently occupying the conversations I finally dubbed “Dungeon Defense.”

DD was an absolutely elegant concept.  The tower defense genre was at its height of popularity at the time, as was World of Warcraft®.  Jeremy and I had talked about a fantasy style game that would generate random dungeons, and be kind of like a Diablo clone for the iPhone, but for the iPhone, the game concept had to be scoped way down. There was no way we could have pulled off the amount of content required to do that kind of game justice.  It was at that point we came up with the idea of flipping the concept of a “dungeon crawler” game upside down by framing the player as the dungeon. Instead of the player venturing forth and fighting monsters for loot and exploring dungeons, in DD you WERE the dungeon, defending your loot and treasure from invading heroes who want to defeat you..  This idea became more attractive as we realized we could scope it down justifiably, and introduce elements of the tower defense genre as well, by creating a game that everyone can relate to in its setting, but a new twist on how you play it.  It was truly novel, and doable on the iPhone platform. When Jeremy told me one day they were doing DD, I had a moment of sadness that I wasn’t there to contribute.

By this time, I was growing very weary of the daily 2 hour commute to id, and with a few other compelling reasons to head back to Austin, I had begun talking to Jeremy about if they needed an artist for the freshly minted InMotion Software studio.  My friend Marshall Womack had been filling the artist duties for some time, but was about to head over to Twisted Pixel to work on Splosion Man for XBOX.  A quick phone call to John Howard one evening after work, and it was set.  After 7 months at one of the best and most respected game companies in history, I would turn in my two weeks notice at id, and Katie and I would move back to Austin.

I came on board with InMotion halfway through DD Development.  It was odd being in a studio full of MacBooks, Mac Minis, etc.  InMotion had definitely grown since the boss’s pool table.  Everyone was going through the same pains of adapting to Mac except for me, who was still cranking out artwork on the PC.

After Dungeon Defense had mild initial success, we made two more add on campaigns, when sales of DD began to slip, and as a team we decided to take a breather before moving on to the next tower defense style game.  The short “two-week” project Jeremy suggested in a moment of brilliance was a dig dug/motherlode style game where you dig up treasure, sell it for upgrades, and return to the deep to hunt for more treasure.

I took this opportunity to put on my naming hat again and I called it “I Dig It.”  The name was at first scowled at; and other names suggested, but I stuck to my guns.  I Dig It was not only WHAT you did in the game, but also a subtle forced declaration of how you felt about it.  A positive review spun right into the very name of the game.  How could it go wrong?  You couldn’t say the name of the game without also telling people you liked it at the same time.  It even had the letter “I” in it, which had already become so cliché in the iTunes store that anytime we saw a new app like iLawnmower, we cringed.  But I Dig It?  That wasn’t bad. 

 

The two-week project began with only Jeremy and me working on the tech and concept.  I started feeding Jeremy artwork, and he plugged it in very quickly.  By the end of two weeks we had the tech demo working, but no real game. As we realized this might be a larger project, Brian finalized work on the Dungeon Defense updates and switched over to I Dig It. Now I like having artistic control on a project, but I had never been the ONLY artist on a team that had actually done anything this big with so few people.  At that time, the InMotion team consisted of Jeremy and Brian, the programmers; me the artist; and Johnny “Cash” Howard, who was the funding behind this endeavor.  The problem with a game team that is structured that way was that we would take the entire team down for design discussions.  We had no full time game designer on staff, so it took all of us at once to hammer out the mechanics of the gameplay.  About three quarters of the way through I Dig It Development, we got the bright idea to hire a designer.  We put out a call to Chris “Cookie” Graham as he was parting company with FizzFactor downtown.  Cookie had worked with Jeremy and I at Midway, and we knew he could handle the job.  As Cookie came on board, we saw instant productivity benefits, as the programmers could focus on the tech, and Cookie delivered on the fun.

When we wrapped up I Dig It, and released it, we realized a few things about Apple, iPhone development, and marketing an indie game.  With Jeremy and I used to being at gigantic game studios that have people on staff to take care of marketing and promotion, we had never sat down and thought about how to promote our iPhone games.  When we released TriniTower, we just kind of patted it on the back and tossed it to the wind, hoping someone would see it, like it, and buy it.  With Dungeon Defense, and a great deal more time and money invested, we had a bit of a different expectation on the return on investment of development.  However, we still had no real knowledge of how to promote our game, since other people had always been tasked to do that before.  A break came when a Google search turned up an iPhone game review site called Touch Arcade that had a forum member post a positive review of Dungeon Defense almost the day it came out.  This led us to start working the forums, watering the grassroots marketing effort that we were beginning to recognize and cultivate.  Had we known about Touch Arcade and similar sites when we released TriniTower, or hyped Dungeon Defense pre release on such sites, we would have stood a greater chance at success.

Now when the light at the end of the tunnel started to break its twinkly self through the darkness of project development, we realized we had to learn our marketing lessons and learn them fast.  We had a great deal more money and time invested in I Dig It than we had planned for, and we actually were hoping to turn a profit at this iPhone game biz.

So we set out to light a fire under every media contact, every forum, and every possible method of getting the word out that we had a good game, and it was for sale. We wrapped up the game in its current state, and sent it off to Apple.  Then the waiting began.  At this point in the process, you’re pretty much completely at Apple’s whim.  They approve the application, or don’t.  They promote the application, or don’t.  With thousands of apps hitting the store every week, if you don’t catch the attention of someone at Apple, you get buried.  And that’s right where we were.

Sales were not dismal, but they were not reflective of the quality we thought we had invested in this game.  We began entertaining the idea of becoming a non-game studio, app a day, lower production value apps or games.  We were considering just trying to “make it up in volume” when we started getting good word from people on the forums.  What really started turning us around was word from one post that said our game was being passed around the Apple’s World Wide Developer’s Conference like the “swine flu.” A day later, we got an email from Apple.  To paraphrase, it amounted to “Dear InMotion, we love your app.  We would like the artwork and materials needed in order to do a possible feature on you in the iTunes store.”

I cranked out the artwork and sent it to them, only to hear nothing.

It was like we were beating our fist against the monolith that was Apple, and they were not shedding any love for our “out of nowhere” studio.  Meanwhile lesser quality titles from studios that have more intimate connections with apple got featured left and right.  We went back to Dungeon Defense, what we thought was our tried and true Intellectual Property, and began cranking on a new map expansion in an attempt to boost sales of that title.

Then Touch Arcade did a front-page feature and review on their site praising I Dig It.  At this point, we dropped the price to $0.99 in an attempt to get I Dig It into the top 100 games, which was our goal. It got there, and kept going.  As soon as it started catching the attention of iPhone gamers, we got word from friends abroad that it was climbing the charts at a blistering pace in Canada, Japan, Russia and other countries.  However, in the US we were nowhere.  Apple wouldn’t feature us like they said they would, and we were beginning to hound our one contact at Apple to find out why.  Finally, the price drop to $0.99, coupled with a hailstorm of forum posts, podcast reviews, and other efforts began to push I Dig It up the US Charts.  Slowly at first, but then every day it was up a notch.  Then up several places in the list, then finally after what seemed like months, we broke the top 100 paid games, then top 100 paid Apps, then we really started shooting up the lists.  By the time Apple finally decided to do a feature on I Dig It, we were the #9 top paid app in the country.  We sat around the studio watching in disbelief the Thursday I Dig It hit the #1 Top paid app in the world, displacing the Moron Test.  It stayed at that level for about 6 days, and we started rolling the updates to keep it as fresh as possible and delay the slow retreat down the charts.

This experience has been truly unique in my career.  While working on big budget titles I never saw the kind of success I have seen with this little independent title.  I have never had such daunting tasks, or so much fun and satisfaction.  I have never had to strain my talents to the breaking point so much, yet have never been rewarded for doing so to this extent.  We’re working on the sequel to I Dig It now, and hopefully we have learned enough to repeat our success.  Dealing with this side of Apple takes some getting used to. We have to learn how to work the system, but it’s a load of fun getting there.  You might say I dig it.  And yes, I still make art on a PC.

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A Different Look at Creativity Part II: the social media mix

Before we go any further…

I want to point out that what I am describing here is a process, a way of looking at how we create whether it involves groups of people or individuals and what we need in the way of tools and environments to support us along the way. The  concepts and processes are not linear or pretty and admittedly leave lots of room for further exploration and development.

creative_spectrum_somedia A Different Look at Creativity Part II: the social media mix

Let’s get going..

Now that we have the creative spectrum somewhat sketched out let’s see how it can work with the social media. The primary element of social media, in fact its’ keystone is connectivity at levels that far exceed what we could have imagined even a year ago. And… this connectivity has different levels of applicability depending on the users intent and goals.  Before we  look in detail at specific social media let’s try to find what  Creators, Makers and Producers  need to succeed, what tools are most useful to them. The brief list below summarizes common tools and methods, some have been available but limited in their usefulness.

  • Brainstorming – This is one of the fundamental tools of creativity. While it is possible that it can be done alone,  in this context it is considered best used interactively with 2 or more participants.
  • Collaboration -Whether between those working in like media or dissimilar media collaboration is often a tool for generating new outcomes. Often new ways of seeing the same problem/issue or a new direction or concept emerges through collaboration and interaction
  • Critique and feedback -In order for creatives to successfully achieve their vision they need to engage the eyes, hearts and opinions of others as a reality check. Given their goal…does their concept or theory attain the desired outcome?
  • Moral and professional Support – Just as critique and feedback are important to the creative process so is having access to moral and professional support. This kind of support can be everything from a colleague being a phone call away to a regular mastermind group that provides encouragement and professional mentoring. provide  user friendly  tools for dialogue.
  • Background research – One of the early steps in a creative venture is background research designed to find out what if anything has been done before and what the results were.
  • Market research – Separate from background research is the particular type of research linked to the branding process. Market research is important in the concept stage as well as the producer stage, however, the intensity of its use may vary throughout the spectrum.
  • Client/customer support – Good customer support which can include helping customers use their products, to getting usability feedback is very important .
  • Visibility- Visibility contributes heavily to a product’s success…  the more extensive the visibility possibilities generally the better the sales.  For visibility to work it must give the users the ability to be seen by their buyers.
  • Customer/client communication -Being able to communicate in a direct and timely manner to  customers  keep them informed and up to date for new developments is a strong determiner of success.
  • Market connection – Having reliable channels to connect to markets is also very important to ensuring good communication  with users and being able to respond to changes in market preferences.
  • Relationship development – The relative ease with which potential relationships can be identified and developed between Makers and Producers and their markets as well as amongst their colleagues cannot be underestimated. This factor is particularly important now with the decline of traditional interruption based marketing.

Now lets take a more focused look at  these in relation to the Creators,Makers and Producers. A word of caution…this is at best an approximation and for simplicity sake implies that the spectrum overlap areas will also include overlap in social media usefulness.

Creators

Since this part of the spectrum leans heavily towards the conceptual  ( see part 1)   tools that will be the most useful are the ones most likely to enhance creative thought. Their primary needs are:

  • Brainstorming
  • Collaboration
  • Critique and feedback
  • Moral and professional Support

Makers

Again as described previously in part 1, this group starts to interact with the market while at the same time providing feedback to the original creators of the recipes and templates they are refining. Their primary needs include:

  • Visibility
  • Relationship development
  • Market and background research
  • Moral and professional support
  • Customer communication
  • Relationship development
  • Market connection

Producers

This part of the spectrum’s needs are quite different than the others in that it is heavily market focused. The primary needs of Producers are:

  • Visibility
  • Relationship development
  • Market and background research
  • Customer communication
  • Relationship development
  • Market connection

In summary  the Creative community needs the following environments and tools:

  • Interactive to easily sprout and nurture creative thought and interact with peers
  • Relationship building to enable easy relationship development with their markets peers
  • Market focused to help build and maintain visibility and disburse brand messages

The next step…

is to take a look at social media to see what tools are available and which type of  media works best for Creators, Makers and Producers respectively. Let’s first look at what constitutes Social Media by definition…Wikipedia describes it as

“Social media are primarily Internet- and mobile-based tools for sharing and discussing information among human beings. The term most often refers to activities that integrate technology, telecommunications and social interaction, and the construction of words, pictures, videos and audio. This interaction, and the manner in which information is presented, depends on the varied perspectives and “building” of shared meaning among communities, as people share their stories and experiences.”

Organizing Social Media

  • Blogs and Microblogs web site that allows individuals or groups to produce an ongoing conversation, microblogs limit uses to small bursts of information.
  • Interactive/Social networking networks that allow users to interact directly either in real time of very close to it.
  • Social network aggregation sites that gather all of the social media messages and content and categorize it for reading
  • Events networks online networks that allow users to organize users around specific subjects and schedule live on-site meetings.
  • Wikis a web site that allows collaborative editing of its content and structure by it’s users
  • Social bookmarking sites that allow users to save, recommend and comment on web content
  • Opinion sites consumer evaluation, review of products and services
  • Photo and Video sharing sites that provide a means of sharing organizing and sharing photographic and video content with users
  • E-commerce sites that allow users to sell products they created or are re-selling

Matching the needs with the tools

Now lets organize these according to how they can help the creative community with an eye on the specific needs Identified earlier.

Brainstorming – Collaboration

Microblogs / Presence apps Twitter, Pownce and Jaiku
Photo sharing Flickr
Video sharing YouTube,
Interactive Networks shapshifters, deviant art, Behance network. Likemind, Ning
Wikipedia wiki’s, forums and membership sites

Critique and feedback

Blogs & micro blogs Twitter, Pownce and Jaiku
Wikis PB wiki
Photo & video sharing Flickr,YouTube
Social/Interactive networks shapshifters, deviant art, Behance network. Likemind, Ning
Wikipedia wiki’s, forums and membership sites
Opinion sites epinion,ask

Moral and professional Support

Social/ interactive networks Facebook, Myspace, LinkedIn, deviant art, Behance network Likemind, Ning forums
Event Networks Meetup

Background research

E-commerce Etsy, e-bay
Wikipedia
Microblogs / Presence apps Twitter, Pownce and Jaiku
Social bookmarking Delicious, StumbleUpon,Digg, Mixx, Reddit
Event Networks Meetup

Market research

Blogs
E-commerce Etsy, e-bay
Social/ interactive networks Facebook, Myspace, LinkedIn, shapshifters, deviant art, Behance network Likemind, Ning
Wikipedia wiki’s, forums and membership sites
Event Networks Meetup

Visibility

Blogs & micro blogs Twitter, Pownce and Jaiku, blog catalogue, good blogs
Photo & video sharing Flickr,Youtube
Social/ interactive networks Facebook, Myspace, LinkedIn,  deviant art, Behance network, Ning
Event Networks Meetup
E-commerce Etsy, e-bay

Customer/client communication

Blogs & micro blogs Twitter, Pownce and Jaiku,
Photo & video sharing Flickr,Youtube
Social/ interactive networks Facebook, Myspace, LinkedIn, Ning site
Event Networks Meetup
E-commerce Etsy, e-bay

Market connection

E-commerce Etsy, e-bay
Blogs & micro blogs Twitter, Pownce and Jaiku
Social/ interactive networks Facebook, Myspace, LinkedIn, Ning site

Relationship development

Blogs & micro blogs Twitter, Pownce and Jaiku
Social/ interactive networks Facebook, Myspace, LinkedIn, Ning site
Event Networks Meetup

Part 3…..

will will take a closer look at just what and how Creators, Makers and Producers can utilize social media from Facebook to Twitter to YouTube.




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 A Different Look at Creativity Part II: the social media mix

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San Diego Comic-Con 2008: Part 2

My professional agenda for Comic-Con was fairly simple: Soak in the visuals, get a general feel for the industry and do some basic networking.  With this in mind, here are some useful tips I learned along the way on how to take advantage of the convention:

  • Bring a highlighter. You’ll need it to track the three-ring circus of panels.  Comic-Con often has an online schedule in advance of the convention, so it’s possible to do some pre-planning.  But it does change/update daily.
  • Know exactly what you are going for, and make it a tight goal, instead of "be discovered and become famous." Research how to meet those goals, and who at Comic-Con can help make them a reality.  If you are looking for work, check out who is hiring and get information on them in advance.  Find out who is looking for the content you are trying to deliver.  Are they offering portfolio reviews?  Will they be exhibiting? This will save you a great deal of time and energy.
  • Network. It’s the obvious one, and it is really easy.  But it’s not just shaking hands after panels or in the exhibitor’s hall.  That guy waiting next to you in line for the Watchmen Trailer may be a fellow artist, filmmaker, or potential client.  Get to know your fellow attendees.
  • Self Promote:  A business card should be mandatory, a giveaway product is even better. There is a "freebie table" where both companies and individuals give out free promotional items.  They do accept drop-offs, however they are vetted for quality and appropriate content.  This is not the venue for cheap photocopies on neon paper.  Instead think of color prints on good paper/cardstock, comics, buttons, CDs/DVDs, etc.  Keep in mind this isn’t a portfolio drop-off.  Portfolio Reviews are done on site, and it would be wise to attend those and give out your portfolio through social networking.  Instead think "product."  For those into guerilla networking, there were some artists, filmmakers and even studios giving out flyers and CDs of their work to those stuck in the various lines.  Some left piles of these fliers in specific spots to be picked up.  Gutsy, but quite a few turned into litter.  Be prepared to cast a wide net.
  • Be aware of the "line-fu." In order to get to the panel you want to go to, it’s best to be in line an hour in advance, especially if you want a good seat.  For popular panels, increase that to an hour and a half to two.
  • Take notes. It feels like you are in class, but your short-term memory will thank you.
  • Take a backpack or some other large item of holding for both your purchases and giveaway promotional materials available.  Make sure it’s something that you can carry all day.

Now to the meat of the convention…the panels!  It is here that I found the wealth of industry experience and information.  Panelists were very helpful, however many times they were asked what I refer to as "what-is-zen" questions such as "how do I get published?"  "how do you write?"  "how do you make your comic a film?"   These generic questions often lead to generic answers.  Instead, do some research on your own on the generalities.  There are many resources online, for example, with the basics on how to write a novel, film a movie, or make a comic.  Come armed with a direction or specific questions to make the most of the technical expertise out there. Immediately on the Thursday panels (Entertainment Weekly’s Comic Creators, How to Write a Pitch, Graphic Novels) that I attended, the love/hate relationship between comics and movies popped up. There is no beating around the bush.  Movies have been extremely profitable for comics (just ask Mark Millar of Wanted), and Hollywood is also reaping the financial rewards of fresh visions (The Dark Knight anyone?)  As a result, there is a tendency by newcomers to tailor their graphic works for film, using cinematic conventions and subsequent visual limitations, instead of working within the looser comics framework.  The resulting hybrid becomes less than either in its totality, and editors treat it as such. Another side effect of the comics/movie relationship is the danger of how the public views your work.  Mike Mignola, at Entertainment Weekly’s Comic Creators, stated that when people think of Hellboy, they think of the movie first and not the comic which differs in plot. Underscored at both How to Write a Pitch and the So You Want to Do a Graphic Novel panels was that everyone has an idea.  But, what editors and publishers want to see is whether you can follow through and have a finished product.  Evidence of past finished work, or a full manuscript or draft will attract their notice.  Even when doing a simple Q&A at a panel, you will receive more attention.  One of my friends at an author’s panel has several unpublished novels.  When he asked how best to proceed, he was literally showered with tips from the panelists.  Also, your idea should be able to be verbalized into a short pitch slightly less than a paragraph.  When the How to Write a Pitch panelists were asked what was a good example, Rob Levin of Top Cow responded, "Snakes on a Plane".  The graphics novel panel, organized by the independent comics publisher Larry Young of AiT/Planet Lar had a very mixed panel of authors/writers of various styles.  When asked about structure, Steven Grant (Badlands) was more freeform in advising to let the story dictate the structure.  However, on the same panel were Adam Beechen and Manny Bello (Dugout, Hench), whose background was film, and they admitted that they were fans of the three-act story. Another one of the major themes in the panels is being open to diversification.  J. Michael Straczynski, whose own background runs the gamut of tv (writer/producer, Babylon 5,) comics (writer, Spider-Man, Silver Surfer and several graphic novels), and film (the upcoming Changeling), emphasizes how healthy it is to keep working and active and to not limit oneself to a particular media.  If you are a writer, mention whether it’s an article, a comic, a script, a short story or a novel.    He further added, to speak with your own voice.  Often writers try to write how they think a good writer should write, usually by imitating their favorite authors.  Instead, write like you would speak your own story. It will ring more true and make a better impact. Next time, I’m going to bring a bigger notepad.

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Commerce Digital Lifestyles Hardware Software Workflow

Drawing on my Computer…

One of the most amusing things I feel about my job is the lack of knowledge most people have of it.  I often have people ask what I do for a living. If they know I office out of my home then I their fist vision of me is sitting around in my PJs watching opera with a diet coke in one hand and letting my nails dry on the other.  I may or may not have a computer sitting next to me, but most likely not or else it would be in the way of those feet I am propping up.

For some reason, it’s hard for people to grasp that you can WORK from home and actually make a living.  It even took my husband a long time to figure out that if I didn’t work billable hours, then I didn’t get a paycheck, therefore “NO, I did not get your 10 loads of laundry done today.” Now that he works from home one day a week to offset the cost of gas to drive to his Atlanta office, he sees that there are no bonbons or soap operas in my office.  But to those who do not see my daily routine  – it’s hard for them to imagine one having the self-discipline enough to “work from home” 

There are also those who understand the concept that I work, but not really what I DO.  In try to explain in layman’s terms that “I am a designer of all things that can be either printed on something or put on the web” That way (and I have had this before) I didn’t have to answer yes to their 30 item survey of “can you do’s” But yet even in layman’s, they still do not grasp that that billboard didn’t just magically appear on that highway or the website they use everyday to check their bank balance didn’t just come from air. It’s quite funny actually to watch the reactions people make when I tell them what I do.  Either they are immediately intrigued or they look like someone handed them a Su Doku puzzle and asked them to solve it on 30 seconds.

One of my favorite questions about my job I get every time I go home for a visit and see a particular elementary teacher who is always very intrigued by my talent.  She always very respectfully says “ Are you still drawing on your computer” I have learned just to say yes as sometimes it is just easier for people to visualize it that way. Little do they know that I haven’t “drawn” since I was in “Life Drawing” my last semester in College.  But that is okay.  To some people, making art requires a pencil or paintbrush and paper. The extremists of this line of thinking tend to believe that graphic arts/advertising isn’t really art at all.  But that is a whole other argument all-together that I will not attempt to get into. I will however, put out there for those who still don’t understand how I “draw on my computer” a little peek into my daily thought process – while I am eating my bon-bon of course!

Without too much detail, here is a sample scenario of one project I may get in a day….

Most of the time I already have at least 5 jobs in production and take on one new. Client calls after being referred to me by another client or one of my partners.  They are a new business or an only business seeing a new identity.  They need it all.  Website, collateral package, logo for starters.

I visit with the client usually for at least 30 min, sometimes with multiple people on a conference call.  This is typical with the majority of my client base being out of state.  The customer outlines their current situation – where they have been and where they want to go.  I ask them if they have competitors so I can see what our marketing is up against.  I also ask for samples of directions they like.  Some customers have the taste of a dry popsicle stick and others actually have a great concept of where they want their company to go. This is fantastic as mind reading is not part of my job description even though I have done it  –  a lot.  Once I get an idea of where they have been and want to go, I outline what elements they need.  Logo, collateral package (consisting of letterhead, envelopes and business cards sometimes even a brochure), and website.  I’ve made my notes, gotten a feel for the personalities of the client (which is VERY important) and I am ready to build my estimate.  Sometimes If I can tell that the client is on the smaller side of the business, I ask if they have a budget so I know up front how realistic their expectations are.  However if I know the client is larger and has the advertising budget to handle my hourly rate, I do not worry about asking as sometimes this can limit your creative thinking when estimating.  After I build by estimate and deliver it to the customer I usually get approval within a few days.  In the meantime I am frantically trying to wrap up other projects to make room.  When I receive the signed estimate I begin the research and concept phase.  This is the most crucial part of my job.

Because it is said so perfectly and so inline with my way of “concepting”, I will quote "The Three C’s of Design" excerpted from Jim Krause’s “Design Basics Index”:

COMPOSITION
The way in which the components of a design are visually combined and arranged.  Composition takes into account placement, grouping, alignment, visual flow and the divisions of space within a layout. 

COMPONENTS
The visual elements used within a design,  Photos illustrations, icons, typography, linework, decorations, borders and backgrounds are all components.

CONCEPT
Abstract elements of theme, connotation, message and style.  These intangible ingredients of a design or image are critical to its visual presentation and delivery of message.

And I am going to add a personal touch to this by adding a 4th….

CREATIVITY
The thought and  vision that sets this customer’s design/concept apart from those of its competitors.  The eye-popping, get you thinking Idea behind the design.

This is the method to my madness.  I know that it is hard to “visualize” for some people, but there is a “vision” in a designer’s head before they even use their tools to built it.  The Composition, Components, Concept and Creativity are what make that Billboard catch the attention of a diver passing by at 68.5 miles per hour.  It is what makes people choose one vendor over another when searching the web for a particular item. It is what determines a “keeper” over junk” when sorting through your mail. Advertising does not work without these four C’s. 

After a day (maybe more depending on how many pieces are involved) of exploring these 4 and putting together my presentation I post these for the client to review and stew over for a few days.  Almost every time I have a unanimous decision and approval to move forward with one of my concepts within a day. Then the hard work comes in.  I collect data for the sites, build all of the pieces to flow seamlessly and work with the client for the next few weeks to get all the details just right before sending to the printer or uploading to the site.

Once approved and delivered, I most likely have already bid and started a few other jobs and it’s on to start those I go. And this folks is what I “do”, I am sad to disappoint those who were looking for the use of charcoal on a sketch pad as my final product but I will say I do sketch out concepts to get them clear in my head. So I guess you can say that I do “draw” a little.  Just not on my computer.  Hopefully this will also show for those who just don’t understand that (even though I wish it did) my day doesn’t have much room for the latest profound advice of Dr. Phil or round of “whites” in the washer in-between phone calls. I will say that without all that I have just about the coolest job there is.  Even without the bonbons.

 

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Commerce Digital Lifestyles

Employment Adventures

Or One Way To Become A Game Designer

Sunday night.  The phone rings.  It’s my boss John.  “Brad, do you want the good news or the bad news?” 

Freeze frame.  Okay, so to explain what’s going on here, I had been pacing back and forth since Saturday.  A phone call from John means one of several things.  Either my game project’s cancelled, or I am laid off, or the whole company’s shut down.  It’s nervous time.

Rewind to Wednesday night.  My wife Kate and I are at dinner, when she asks how work is going.  Work, I say, had been better.  Our game project had been searching for direction for some time.  While some people were outwardly gung-ho to race towards the finish line, a lot of faces told the story that we were going nowhere fast. Sometimes games just don’t gel and plugs get pulled.

I casually say, “I think they’re going to cancel our project.”

I’ve been here before, the calm before the storm.  A project or a studio about to take a turn for the worse, I can almost taste it.  It’s not any one thing you can put your finger on.  It’s something you have to experience a few times to get a sense of.  In my almost decade of doing art for money, I have experienced this sensation many times, and have been blessed enough to come out on the other side, but it’s not always apparent what will happen.  Like I say, I’ve been here before.

For example, in my last few months of college, I got a contract gig in Houston for a web development company.  The only web experience I had was maintaining my own site, but they saw fit to hire me full time after I graduated as their multimedia specialist.  For the first job of my career, I had a crash course in how my boss’s over-expectations clashed with my own inexperience.  Working for a living was not easy.  Not to mention, the owners of the company had a huge fight and I was caught in the middle of something I had not been prepared for.  I even dragged one of my best friends in the mess with me. Luckily, she got out when the getting was good.  Office Drama 101?  I missed out on that class.  Two days before the bottom completely fell out, I got a call from a fellow named Van.  He had seen my website and wanted to interview me.  I blew him off because I wanted my current job to work out.  It didn’t.

So I am now jobless in a city I’d never been to, and a week later, Van calls me again.  Decent timing, that.  He was head of a PC game company, and he wanted to know again if I was interested in a job.  I thought, “Games?”   I had never considered doing games before full time, but sure, I’ll swing by for an interview.  To this day, I have no idea how he found me.

Thus started my gaming career and it’s been a rollercoaster ride ever since.  That interview put me in as lead artist at Digital Tome.  For three years I worked my heart out on several games for them, and at the end, we get the news that they have to close their doors.  Bad timing!  I had just met a swell gal named Katie, and was hoping to actually have a job when I asked her out on a date.  Oh well, that really didn’t matter to her evidently.

Anyway, After Digital Tome, I found a true brickburner of a contract gig, right there in Houston.  While I was lounging around my apartment burning down my stockpile of non-perishables and water and the occasional cracker while looking for full time work, I get a call out of the blue from a fellow who was interested in my services.  “Hi, my name’s Glenn. Your resume came across my desk and I wanted to interview you for a graphic artist position.”  Oh, he has a desk, and at least an assistant?  That seems promising… it’s not gaming, but it’ll do for now.  I get my interview face on and head out.

Turns out, this guy had an interactive multimedia CD authoring and marketing company in New York and after some unexplained event fired everyone in his entire staff and flash relocated to North Houston.  Glenn hired me on as his ONLY EMPLOYEE to replace all those people, and we set to work making website/cd/marketing packages for various get rich quick schemes and multi-level marketing outfits.  Oh, did I mention he worked out of his house?  Or that he did not have a desk, or an assistant?  And that all his equipment was in storage? And it was completely disassembled with no manuals and parts missing?  Yeah.  I suppose Glenn never hired anyone else because anytime he needed someone to do his websites, photography, logos, interactive UI, video and audio editing, radio commercial writing, network and email support, hardware support and to keep track of his keys and schedule and take calls at all hours of the night, well, I suppose I fit the bill. 

So, after one particularly grueling weekend that Glenn did not allow me to leave work for sixteen hours straight to finish a project, said project being full of things I had never done before, learning on the fly while Glenn kept threatening to “hire somebody else to do the job,” my freshly minted girlfriend Kate took me aside and told me that if we were going to be together, I could not work like that. It wasn’t healthy for me or our relationship, and she was tired of not spending time with me.  Wow, she actually wanted to see me once in a while. During that last nonstop work-a-thon, I got a call from the owner of Timegate Studios.

Now Timegate was at the time the only other game in town, so to speak.  I thought that if I wanted any semblance of a normal workload and schedule, I should probably see what they had to offer.  Plus it put me back into the game industry, which was a plus.  However, they only wanted to pay me a fraction of what I was used to making both at Digital Tome and for Glenn.  The stability and benefits weighed in and I took the job.  

Six months later, Kate and I got married, and I had settled back into game development.  After three years of clawing my way up the financial ladder at Timegate to a salary *almost* equivalent to what I made right out of college, the bad news came.  Timegate was out of money, closing its doors, and we were mostly all laid off. I had survived three rounds of layoffs there, but no amount of talent will keep a job that doesn’t exist anymore.  While it was nice that the head of the company helped us all fill out the unemployment info on the last day, it was kind of rough to say goodbye to good friends. 

The day they laid us all off, Hurricane Rita started making headlines.  I was sitting at home Wednesday three days after the layoff, in my unemployed splendor watching the weatherman predict the eye of the storm running right over our house.  I called Kate to tell her to come home and scoop up the cats and we were heading for higher ground before the roads got too clogged.  As she’s driving home, I start gathering up what we’re going to take with us, and I am wondering if we should evacuate to Dallas, where my family lives, or Austin, where Kate’s family lives.

My email pops up just before I unplug my computer with a message from Midway Studios Austin.  “Hi, we’ve seen your website and wonder if you’d like to come in for an interview.”

Good timing… Austin it is!

Fourteen hours later in a normally two hour trip, we get to Austin.  The next day, I have an interview that lasts six hours at Midway.  Even in my frazzled evacuee state, I do reasonably well.  Turns out, one of my good friends who had gone to Midway Chicago had sent in my stuff for me, and they had forwarded it to the Austin studio without me knowing.  It wasn’t until the last conversation of that six hour interview that I even knew what position they were hiring me for.

My time at Midway had been the best work experience in my career.  These guys were true professionals, took care of everything, made me feel right at home, sent me to Chicago to the home office, San Jose for GDC, Seattle for a summit, I had rolled into the big time as far as game development went.  I was on a multimillion dollar project and working my way up.  I got to work on Blacksite Area 51, and the unannounced other four year project, I learned a lot and made great friends and contacts.

I don’t want to say a thing bad about Midway, I loved working there.  It was the best company, the best team, the best project I had ever worked on. It’s just that the monumental talent we had brought to bear on this project couldn’t save our game, and people started to realize it, but we never stopped working as hard as we could.  While I was trying my hardest to polish the UI and get the FX and vehicles and weapons for the next product review, I got a call from a fellow at id Software in Dallas.

A friend of mine from Timegate years ago that wound up at id had asked if I wanted to come up there and work, and at the time, Midway was rocking along ok, I didn’t see the need to jump ship.  A few weeks later, they wanted to call me for a phone interview, and I thought, “What could it hurt?”

Halfway through the call, they say they’re going to fly me up to Dallas to interview, and I think, well, ok, we’ll do that. But later they call back and they have to postpone.  This is fine, because I do have a lot of work to do and I hated taking a day off short notice when my team needed me.  So, in between the phone call, and the postponed on site interview at id, things at Midway start to erode.  I had seen the writing on the wall a few weeks prior, but it was really clear that something was impending.

That brings us back to Wednesday night at dinner with Kate.  “I think they’re going to cancel our project.”

The next morning, Thursday, I actually hear rumors to the fact through the wonderful high-speed grapevines that intertwine throughout our little industry.  Way better than carrier pigeon.  I lean over to my closest companions at work and mention they should get whatever ducks or other waterfowl they use to classify their daily duties squarely in a row, ‘cause something’s going down on Monday.

Friday, I get up, get ready, get my stuff together and head to the airport.  Oh, did I mention that’s the day id software had rescheduled me to fly up to Dallas for an interview?  Great timing!  After the interview, the driver takes me back and I fly back to Austin, Kate picks me up and we drive down to San Antonio.  While I am spanning three cities in one day, everyone at Midway is getting frantic as to what’s going to happen Monday.  While there’s no official word, we all kind of know what’s going on in one form or another.  Saturday after we get home, the phone starts ringing and the text messages and rumors start flying.  Turns out, by Saturday night, the general consensus is that if you get a call from your boss, he’ll tell you to stay home Monday.  Not only is the project cancelled, but anyone showing up Monday for work will be let go.

I had just had a great interview at id, and I would love to get laid off to get the severance package and smoothly transition northward.  However, I hear nothing from id, and I get a bit nervous.  I also don’t hear anything from work, so it looks like I will be laid off.  The things that go through your mind in a time like this tend to build on top of themselves into a gestalt of anxiety.

Sunday morning, still no word from id or Midway, the rumor mill is at its height, and now I hear that the building is locked, no one has access.  I hear of some of my friends getting calls to stay home, they’re safe.  I have made up my mind that if I am called, or not, I’ll make it through.

Sunday night.  The phone rings.  It’s my boss John. “Brad, do you want the good news or the bad news?” 

“Give me the bad news, John” 

Project is cancelled; they’re laying off eighty plus people.  The good news is they want to keep me, John tells me to just come in on Wednesday and we’ll talk.

Monday, I hang out at home till id contacts me and asks if they can bring Kate and me in. They want to meet the wife, and show her around the office.  That’s a good sign.  Wednesday I show up at work.  And I have to keep my mouth shut about what’s going on.  However, somewhere leaks are sprung, and people are starting to ask questions.  I am starting to have to fend off questions about me leaving Midway.

We drive up there Friday and visit again, I get my offer letter and my fate is sealed for sure.  I’ll be working at id by the first of October.

Remember the high speed grapevine?  Somehow, my studio director got wind of my plans to go to id before I was ready to let anyone know.  She was cool about it, just wanted to know so she could make plans.  She said I could come back any time, which is nice.   I went ahead and let everyone know so I could help finish as much work as I could before I left.

So now we’re laying plans for the move to Dallas, I am sitting in the middle of my week off before starting at id, and looking back at all the twists and turns I have been through in my career.  Sometimes, it’s tough to know what’s going to happen. I’m here to tell you working in the game industry isn’t always fun and games, but it’s always interesting.  I suppose it’s like the movie industry, swinging from project to project, company to company, but I never thought it would be.  Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t trade it for the world, but it has been up and down.  I just hope this gig lasts more than three years!

 

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Commerce Digital Lifestyles Panels & Gutters & Zip Ribbons

Aikido Al’s Comic Con Slideshow

San Diego Comic-Con 2008: Mostly highlights of the vast Exhibitor’s Hall, with some additional shots of around the convention area.

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Commerce Digital Lifestyles Panels & Gutters & Zip Ribbons

San Diego Comic-Con 2008

Part 1: Yikes! (an overview)

"Geek is good" said Marc Bernardin, Entertainment Weekly and EW.com Senior Editor on Friday’s Entertainment Weekly’s Filmmakers panel. 

That’s the second impression you get after the initial shock of the sheer size of the convention.  It is about 200,000 of your closest friends.  This year was the first Comic-Con that sold out entirely through pre-registration.

  The central core of Comic-Con is "comics."  In reality it’s a multimedia cross-section of pop-culture.  Picture if you will the football field-sized Exhibitor’s Hall.  Major movie studios such as Sony, Paramount, and Warner Brothers rub shoulders comfortably alongside the big two of the comics industry: DC and Marvel.  Video game companies such as NCSoft, Square Enix, and Sony Computer Entertainment also showcase their latest work, as well as television networks such as Fox, BBC America, and the Independant Film Channel giving previews of their latest shows.  Add to that a myriad of independant artists and comics companies, comics vendors, art suppliers, tabletop gaming companies, toy companies, and organized fan groups.

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Commerce Digital Lifestyles Graphics Panels & Gutters & Zip Ribbons

Highlights of GigOfHam.com’s Comic Con 2008 Gallery

Photos by Carl Perry/ GigofHam.com

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Commerce Workflow

Marketing in a Digital Era

A new landscape in the world of marketing is appearing now.  The strength of a company is defined by its digital web presence and that standing is critical to its profit margin and ultimate survival.

Almost everyone has dabbled in throwing up a web page to promote their business.  With the invention and discovery of the internet, I think all of us have considered the latent power of owning web real estate.

Some web pages are extremely well designed. They satisfy the creative eye, are informative and insightful.  But do you ever feel like your site is just sitting there in the vast galaxy of time and space going unnoticed?  Wouldn’t it be nice to get a little more traffic and create some sales out of it?

I know many of us have had that thought run through our heads.

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Commerce Digital Lifestyles Photography Workflow

Recession Proofing Your Studio- Pt. 1

Whether you believe we are in a recession or you are simply seeing a slow down in your business, are you going to kick back and hope the phone starts ringing or wait for our government to help you out? The governments plan of course is to stimulate the economy by pouring money into it by issuing tax rebates to all US taxpayers, most of which have been delivered by now. Whether you agree with this philosophy or not, if you have been losing sleep wondering where your next job is coming from, you need to do more than sit by the mailbox waiting for a $600 check from Uncle Sam.

It never ceases to amaze me every time I am at a gathering with another group of photographers, whether at a convention, an association meeting or just the local camera store, the news is almost always the same–”I’m so slow.” “The phone is just not ringing.” “The economy sucks.” “Nobody wants to spend any money.”

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Commerce Digital Lifestyles Hardware Photography Workflow

The Nikon D3

I was always an F kind of guy. My first Nikon pro camera was the original F – a 1971 black body FTN. It supplemented my FM2 and I had it until just a couple of years ago when I sold it to a close friend, who bought it with the understanding that I might occasionally need to fondle it… call it conjugal visits.

A few years later I found a really nice F2 that I still have… I skipped the F3 and F4 entirely

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Art Commentary Commerce Digital Lifestyles Software Workflow

The Computer, The Painter, The Image and His Brushes

When Dr. Michael Roach asked me if I might consider writing an article for DigitalAppleJuice, I was taken aback. I am a painter, and, one could say, a primitive, when it comes to the making of digital images. At least I used to be. Over the past five years, for a number of very practical reasons, I have become more adept at manipulating images on my Mac,